by Peter Bogdanovich
May 10, 2013 3:00 PM
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Perhaps the most difficult-to-see of Orson Welles' films --- and his own personal favorite --- is Chimes at Midnight, his amazing consolidation of the Falstaff sections of five Shakespeare plays into what the venerable theatre critic Brendan Gill described in The New Yorker (at the time of its tiny 1967 U.S. release under the title Falstaff) as a brand new play by William Shakespeare, for which Welles deserved our undying gratitude (available in foreign DVDs presented in English).

Orson had been working on this project off and on for thirty years, having done it first on an American stage tour in the 1930s as Five Kings, and in the 60s on the Dublin stage as Chimes at Midnight, not long before he went to Spain with a million dollars, and directed, scripted and starred in the best, most human and touching Shakespeare movie ever made.

As Henry IV, John Gielgud is regally heartbreaking --- especially in the "uneasy lies the head that wears the crown" soliloquy; Keith Baxter is the ultimate ambitious politician --- Welles used to compare him to Jack Kennedy --- as Prince Hal/Henry V; Jeanne Moreau is the most sensuously understanding Doll Tearsheet, particularly memorable in the moving scene of impotency between her and Sir John Falstaff, which Welles (heavily made up and padded) does as the role he was born to play.  So does Margaret Rutherford as Mistress Quickly, as well as the rest of the exceptional international cast.

There is a brilliantly shot and edited battle sequence that Welles cut by hand frame for frame into a terrifying, savage denunciation of war.  The final wordless --- on Falstaff's part --- renunciation scene with Henry V is one of the few really tragic moments in picture history.  If you want to believe again that movies are an art, for God's sake find this, and run it every time you need reassurance.

The single movie Welles directed in Hollywood that became a financial success was his 1946 thriller, The Stranger --- the first movie he was allowed to make after Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons --- starring Loretta Young, Edward G. Robinson and himself as a former Nazi hiding out in a small New England town (available on DVD). It is also the least of all of his directorial efforts, but still pretty damn good, if only as an example of the kind of work he could have continued to do within the system if he had not been the restlessly iconoclastic and innovative artist he was, who, however sullied his acting career became, remained true behind the camera to his tragic, darkly poetic vision of life.

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  • DaveM | June 2, 2013 5:12 PMReply

    In response to MAK, I think the sound track controversy you are recalling was the 1990s "restoration" of Othello. (In the late 70s, I saw a newly made print of Othello at the Public Theater in NYC, and it was not in need of restoration.)

    There has been on ongoing fight about ownership of Chimes between the estates of the original Spanish producer and Harry Saltzman, who provided the finish money for the film. I gather this dispute has kept the film off DVD in most markets.

    I assume it was a coincidence, but the week that this blog post appeared Chimes was shown as part of a Welles retrospective at the Music Box Theater in Chicago. The retrospective featured very good copies of a number of films I've waited for years to see in good prints (The Trial, the Stranger, Mr. Arkadin.) The Chimes print, unfortunately, was pretty poor -- not so much that that it was scratched or overly spliced, but that it was probably poorly made in the first place. The sound track was murky and had a consistently loud hum that took you right out of the picture. I had the same experience when I saw Chimes at the Carnegie Hall Cinema in the mid 70s. For all I know, it was the same print!

    A lot of worked, sound track notwithstanding -- "Uneasy lies the head", Margaret Rutherford's "he made a finer end", and, of course, the Battle of Shrewsbury.

    Robert Harris has posted that there are excellent existing film elements, and has even seen a good new print with no audio problems. This is not a film that requires restoration. I hope the rights situation get cleared up so this film can rightly take its place in Welles' canon.

    Speaking of quality copies, the best DVD version of The Stranger is not the link in the post, but MGM Film Noir series version, also available on Amazon.

    I could write at length about what it was like seeing Welles' films with a crowd, but what stuck out at this retrospective was the laughter--not something I associate with Welles. Comic highlights: Tim Holt announcing his ambition to be a yachtsman in Ambersons, Anthony Perkins calling his phonograph a "pornograph" in the Trial, Robert Arden thinking he is being introduced to Goya in Mr. Arkadin, Howard Hughes' ham sandwich in F for Fake.

    By the way, F for Fake killed--it was greeted with a enthusiastic ovation at the end.

  • MAK | May 19, 2013 3:13 PMReply


    Anyone who's seen CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT can still hear Margaret Rutherford speaking of finding Falstaff on his deathbed where 'his feet were cold as stone', etc. Just the sound of her speaking voice. Chills! And such brilliant casting - all thru the film. How that man loved good acting.

    I've always wondered if Welles chose to film the same three Shakespeare projects that Verdi chose to make operas from by design or by chance. Did he ever speak about it? (Plus, Verdi came close to doing a KING LEAR, which Welles did for television. It just seems more than a coincidence.)

    BTW - I think CHIMES was briefly on DVD so maybe there are copies around. (I remember a controversy about the soundtrack being 'cleaned-up.' )

    Looking forward to your next posting.


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